Women’s Justice Access Project: Having your back

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For many people, navigating the Canadian justice system can be overwhelming, but for some clients at Toronto’s Fred Victor 24-Hour Women’s Drop-in, it can feel hopeless. The Women’s Justice Access Project, a collaborative effort between CAMH’s Provincial System Support Program (PSSP) and 10 community partners, is working to change that by bringing free legal supports to the drop-in. 

“You have certain legal problems and you reach a certain stage, but you have no hope,” says Beryl, a client at the drop-in. “It’s too much stress to go through when you are alone. You don’t have anyone at your back.” The women sitting on either side of her, also clients at Fred Victor, nod in agreement.

Ren (left), Beryl and Linda are clients at the Fred Victor Women’s Drop in Centre.

Low-income, racialized, senior women are among some of the most marginalized populations in the city, which makes accessing legal services difficult. Legal expenses notwithstanding, marginalized populations can face additional systemic barriers related to past experiences.

“Traumatic encounters and discrimination have contributed to a mistrust of formal structures like government,” says Nicole Nosworthy, Regional Implementation Coordinator. “Mental health and addictions issues can also increase the intensity of challenges.”

On the other hand, practical barriers like travelling to appointments or accessing services in their language create added stress and difficulties. 

That means many are left to fend for themselves when it comes to basic legal rights, immigration issues, housing problems or landlord disputes, to name a few.

The Women’s Justice Access Project has partnered the drop-in centre with legal supports in the community and students at Downtown Legal Services. The project focuses its programming on the self-identified needs of a variety of clients at Fred Victor, for example, south-east Asian seniors. In this case, lawyers and law students travel to the centre and offer a spectrum of services in both English and Mandarin, from basic education of the Canadian justice system, issues that might require justice support, to one-on-one legal advice.

The Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic (MTCSALC) is funded by Legal Aid Ontario to serve low income, non-English speaking clients from the Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian communities in Toronto. Lawyer Vincent Wong, MTCSALC, says he “feels a certain obligation to help people know their legal rights and access legal solutions, who otherwise would not be able to.”

For Linda, having someone to explain the justice system in her language makes a significant difference.

“Lawyers coming in and speaking our language is very important. We can understand. We feel respect and feel stronger, not lonely. They can help us and it gives us confidence,” she explains.

Some outcomes of the project are truly heart-warming. One woman was able to return home to her family after receiving help through the project to sort out immigration issues.

“Now I can go home and see my family thanks to you and Downtown Legal Services,” she said in an email to her lawyer. “I can’t tell you how I appreciate your work for me. I know it is hard to get this result. You really did best [sic] job for me.”

The members are not the only ones learning more every month; Community Legal Education Ontario and METRAC train staff on a variety of topics, including how to identify when a client might need legal support.

“The women talk to us about this stuff all the time. The law is so complicated-- it’s great to have those contacts in the community, and someone you can refer to in this situation,” says Oriana Sinicropi, a program staff member at Fred Victor.

PSSP’s GTA Regional Implementation Team has been working hard to establish those critical partnerships, acting as mediators between the worlds of justice and mental health and addictions. They also approached justice partners like HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic and the Centre for Equality Rights and Accommodation to negotiate options to bring culturally and linguistically appropriate services to safe spaces like the drop-in. Now the team is working to evaluate the partnerships, making sure they fit well and meet the legal needs of the women.

For Vincent Wong, the synergy between legal professionals and the rest of the social service sector is clear, but he notes there is room to do more across the board from adequate and affordable housing to proper mental health supports and systemic inequities.

“Legal clinics as well as the pro bono bar need to better recognize these opportunities and work together to tackle some of most challenging and urgent societal problems among vulnerable populations.”


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